EVERYBODY NEEDS GOOD NEIGHBOURS?
I am really fortunate to have a job that allows me to travel around the country, working with lots of different organisations, all of them with aspirations to continually improve the ASB service that they offer.
Something that repeatedly comes up as a challenge is dealing with neighbour disputes – situations where two parties are at loggerheads with each other, with complaints and counter-complaints, often about very minor behaviour. It is these cases that often take the most amount of time and remain open for many months, sometimes years. I know many ASB officers who would far rather manage a case involving more serious behaviour, with a clear cut perpetrator and victim.
So what advice would I give for officers dealing with these types of cases?
1. Defining neighbour disputes
A neighbour dispute is a scenario where both parties have some fault in the matter, do not like each other and struggle to get along. Organisations should have a clear policy line about how they deal with neighbour disputes. We cannot control who we live next door to and we have to learn to live with our neighbours; it shouldn’t be down to the landlord, Council or Police to intervene and sort out petty disagreements. It is for this reason that some housing providers and Councils will clearly state that they do not deal with neighbour disputes.
Of course there may be situations where it is recognised that a petty situation has a real risk of escalating to something more serious. In this instance, the organisation may wish to refer the parties to mediation, but should make clear that if mediation fails the organisation will not be stepping in to take action.
The big caveat here however relates to ensuring neighbour disputes are correctly defined. There is a big difference between being involved in a petty argument with your neighbour and having a nuisance neighbour who intimidates and harasses you. An officer should investigate the matter initially, to ensure they have all information to be able to confidently make the decision about whether the matter constitutes a neighbour dispute or not. Wrongly defining a situation as a neighbour dispute, when in fact there is a clear perpetrator and victim, can lead to unnecessary harm being caused, particularly if the victim is vulnerable.
2. Manage expectations
Where a neighbour dispute is apparent, the officer needs to explain this to the parties from the earliest opportunity, setting out clearly why action cannot be taken and why the behaviour reported doesn’t amount to ASB. Failure to do so can lead to the parties thinking that the matter is being dealt with as ASB, raising expectations that the officer will at some stage be resolving the issues.
Handing out diary sheets in relation to neighbour dispute matters is often ill-advised; they are a method of monitoring problems and gathering evidence which, if given to the parties, portray the view that the behaviour is ASB and action will be taken.
In these situations, parties will often report behaviour that is very minor, such as one party staring at another, or peering into windows. It is really important that when these types of reports are received the officer discusses each in turn, explaining to the party why the behaviour is not ASB. If this conversation is not had, and the party keeps reporting the same behaviour or keeping reams of diary sheets on the matters, then they will be incredibly frustrated when they find out later that it was all in vain.
3. Be decisive
Where there is behaviour that is ASB it is important that the officer acts decisively and takes appropriate action. A working understanding of the civil burden of proof (the balance of probabilities) is really important when making decisions in these types of matters. Constantly seeking the levels of evidence needed to satisfy the criminal standard is likely to result in an inability to take action, due to limited independent evidence.
The officer should also not be fearful of taking action against both parties, if required. Whilst the neighbour dispute itself might not be considered ASB, it might be a situation which is causing or likely to cause nuisance or annoyance to others living in the area. For example, an argument between the two parties may occur in the street, something that is witnessed by other neighbours, causing them annoyance. In this scenario, the feuding parties are both perpetrating ASB to the wider community who are the victim.
4. Draw a line
Do you have a situation that has been going on for many years, where it has become really difficult to work out who is responsible? Something I often suggest to my clients is to draw a line under everything that has happened to date. An agreement can even be drawn up with each party – call it an Acceptable Behaviour Contract, Good Neighbour Agreement or whatever fits the circumstances – outlining things that they need to do/not do and consequences of not abiding. This then forms a baseline, where the officer can work from, taking decisive and swift action anytime one of the parties breaches the agreement. The agreement can also make clear the types of behaviour that the organisation will not take action against, bringing further clarity to the parties involved. It is key in these matters that the officer regains control over the situation.
5. Persistent or unreasonable complainants
It is often neighbour disputes that can result in persistent complaints being made to the organisation, often about matters that the organisation cannot and will not deal with. To ensure that it does not result in a drain on the organisation’s resources, action should be taken to temper these contacts. The organisation should have a vexatious, persistent and unreasonable complainant policy. Alternatively, the organisation may wish to advise the party to activate the community trigger. This will then lead to a partnership review of the case and a decision being communicated to the party. Having other organisations also conclude that the matter is not ASB and reiterate that the organisation has done everything they are able, may help to show the party that the organisation has acted appropriately and stop the repeated reports.
I would however encourage officers to keep vulnerability at the forefront of their mind. If a party is reporting a high level of distress caused from very minor behaviours it may suggest that there is another issue that is causing this extreme response. They may have mental health issues or be suffering from bereavement, amongst other things, resulting in their resilience to manage the neighbour issues being greatly reduced. Where this appears to be the case, the officer should consider trying to gain appropriate support for the party, which should help to reduce the impact of the behaviour and consequently the volume of reports to the organisation.
If you have any long-standing cases that you are struggling to resolve, you may benefit from the case review service that I provide which consists of reviewing the case and creating an action plan for resolution. Further details can be found here: https://www.janinegreenasb.co.uk/asb-case-reviews/